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NE CASC Launches Seven New Projects

Wednesday, January 24, 2024
Allegheny Falls - Credit: Alan Cressler, USGS


The Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center has awarded $3,100,000 to NE CASC university consortium institutions, USGS Science Centers, and other partners to embark on seven new research efforts that will inform natural and cultural resource climate adaptation initiatives in the region. In addition to supporting a new partnership that advances Tribal climate adaptation goals, these projects will address partner-identified information needs in the areas of invasive species, climate-smart ecological restoration, aquatic species of greatest regional conservation need, coldwater refugia, and high-elevation red spruce forests. Descriptions of the new projects follow below. 

Project Summaries

Project #1: Projecting the Distribution of Aquatic Species of Greatest Conservation Need Throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region
Climate and land use change are affecting many aquatic species throughout Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. The objective of this project is to understand and plan for the changes in distribution of aquatic species considered “Regional Species of Greatest Conservation Need” (RSGCN) in the mid-Atlantic region. 

Working with state and federal partners, this project will identify high priority species for conservation and obtain data on their known distributions. Researchers will model current and future spatial distributions of these high priority species by using known location records and associated climate, environmental, and land-use data. Comparing future predictions of species distributions to probable future scenarios (i.e., urbanization and energy development scenarios) can help researchers identify species that may require more (or less) conservation attention over time.  

Outputs from this project will include maps of current and projected future species distributions, along with a web-based tool for managers to view the projected distributions of user-specified species at specific time intervals, climate change and land-use scenarios, and geographic extents. These resulting products can be integrated into long-term conservation decision-making and planning to (a) facilitate RSGCN and state-specific SGCN distributional shifts, (b) minimize threats to SGCN, (c) identify areas where conservation is most needed and most likely to be successful, and (d) reduce uncertainty through location-specific focused monitoring and revision. 

Project #2: Indigenous-led Restoration and Stewardship of Culturally Significant Plants for Climate Change Adaptation in the Northeast
Indigenous Nations are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, due in part to their reliance on healthy ecosystems to provide culturally significant plants that are used for traditional foods, medicines, and materials. Further, many Indigenous communities have an under-resourced capacity for climate adaptation, resulting in significant environmental justice impacts that range from health disparities to heightened disaster risks.  

There is growing recognition across the globe of the important role of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in climate change resilience and the innovative solutions that lie at the intersection of Indigenous and western knowledge. However, Indigenous knowledge has not been widely integrated into climate adaptation science. The goal of this project is to engage Indigenous Nations to improve our understanding of the threats facing culturally significant plant species and to collaboratively develop a research plan to address these concerns.  

To complete this work, the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment (CNPE) at SUNY ESF will partner with Indigenous Nations in the Northeast to identify the plants of greatest concern and create maps documenting their occurrence and vulnerability to climate change. They will also convene an Indigenous Women’s Climate Summit to bring together traditional plant knowledge holders and allied scientists to educate one another on possible approaches to cultural plant protection, such as restoration, assisted migration, and revitalization of traditional land care practices. The Summit will yield a working group of collaborators who will create an Indigenous-led research agenda. Lastly, the project team will initiate community-based pilot projects that prioritize collaboration among Indigenous Nations for the protection of cultural plants in the face of climate change. 

The results of this project will enhance awareness of the threats to culturally significant plants posed by climate change and support the development of climate adaptation plans that are designed to protect and maintain these plant species, which are essential to cultural thriving in Indigenous communities.

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Project #3: Using the Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel to Guide Resilient Restoration of Red Spruce in the Central Appalachians
High elevation red spruce forests are among the most iconic and visited natural communities in the High Alleghenies of the Central Appalachian Mountains. These ecosystems provide many services such as clean water and carbon sequestration, as well as habitat for species of high conservation concern, i.e., the eastern brook trout, the northern goshawk, and the northern flying squirrel. However, widespread logging and burning in the early 20th century significantly reduced the extent and integrity of red spruce forests. Replacement regeneration largely converted the region to northern hardwood forests. Recovery of red spruce forests has since been slowed by invasive pests and acidic atmospheric deposition, and the forest is now facing climate change challenges.

The northern flying squirrel can be used as a tool for red spruce restoration planning because their presence indicates healthy spruce forests. The goal of this project is to help forest managers prioritize areas to facilitate or enhance restoration activities that can (a) increase red spruce forest area and (b) create more connected habitat for sensitive wildlife. The team will identify optimal locations for management actions by analyzing the environmental and physical conditions between habitat patches of the northern flying squirrel.

Results from this project will demonstrate how natural communities on the leading edge of climate change impacts can respond and be managed, providing a model that will be needed in the future in the expansive northern forest landscapes of New England, the Lake States and southern Canada.

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Project #4: The Role of Plant Nurseries in Climate-Smart Landscaping and Ecological Restoration
The nursery industry grows, markets, and sells plants for ecological restoration as well as urban and suburban landscaping. The Northeast U.S. is a patchwork of small, mostly private land holdings, where the choices of nursery professionals influence the composition of current and future ecosystems. Unfortunately, the nursery industry focuses predominantly on non-native plants. This approach is ecologically detrimental because it fails to support range-shifting native species - a critical need for climate adaptation - and can result in the introduction of invasive species that harm ecosystems. An alternative approach that would support climate-smart landscaping and restoration, while reducing the introduction of invasive species, is for nurseries to focus on native plant species that are able to survive projected warmer temperatures. However, identifying which native plant species are climate-smart poses a significant challenge to nursery professionals.  

The goal of this project is to analyze information gathered through a survey and workshops to understand the social, cultural, and economic motivations of the nursery industry in regard to supporting climate-smart practice. In addition, researchers will assemble historical and current native plant inventories to identify a list of native plant species that are viable in the Northeast given future climate change projections, marketable in the nursery industry, and useful for restoration and adaptation projects across the region. Researchers will work with the Northeast Regional Invasive Species & Climate Change (NE RISCC) Management network to disseminate this information through outreach documents and webinars. Additionally, the team will support dialogue among plant growers on native plant best practices through a working group and webinars, and between plant growers and restoration practitioners to inform suppliers about increasing demand for warm-adapted plants to support climate-smart restoration.  

Collectively, this work will expand options for viable native plants in the nursery industry, creating a win-win for building climate resilience in ecosystems while simultaneously supporting economic development. 

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Project #5: Integrating Streamflow and Temperature to Identify Streams with Coldwater Refugia in the Northeast
The amount of water flowing through a stream is an important driver of aquatic habitat, but scientists don’t often measure streamflow in the small stream networks that feed larger rivers. Monitoring smaller streams is especially important as climate change is causing them to (a) flood more often and more intensely, and (b) lose habitat as drought events and water temperatures increase. A better understanding of the changing patterns of flow and temperatures in small streams can help decision makers evaluate which streams will provide suitable habitat for plants and animals under a changing climate.

Specific goals of this project are to 1) understand how water flow and temperature interact in small streams and 2) create a website where observed and model-predicted streamflow and water temperature data are easy to access and explore. The project will use an Artificial Intelligence (AI) model to understand available habitat in small streams. The AI model can recognize and reproduce patterns in large and complex datasets such as long-term timelapse photos and detailed environmental data.

Results from this project will be valuable for tracking changes in small streams that provide important habitat for plants and animals in the northeastern region of the United States. Information can be used by decision makers to identify streams that are the best candidates for management and policies to protect vital aquatic habitats.

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Project #6: Identifying Climate-Smart Native Plants to Support Ecosystem Resilience in the Northeast
Plant species are at risk under climate change because their slow dispersal rates limit their ability to shift their spatial distribution in response to rapidly changing conditions. Conservation managers seek to maintain resilient plant communities by planting more native species that are adapted to future climates. However, managers rarely have enough information about which native species are best adapted to climate change within their management areas. 

This project will provide conservation managers with site-specific lists of climate-adapted plant species. The project team will identify “climate-smart species” by using a new spatial dataset of species composition information from thousands of plant communities combined with species distribution modeling. The modeling approach predicts the composition of entire plant communities as a function of site conditions, climate, and information relating to species’ ability to adapt to climate change (e.g., species traits and evolutionary history). Applying this novel modeling approach will provide robust predictions of species distributions and abundances under climate change, and allow the project team to generate climate-smart species lists. 

This project will provide a critical scientific foundation for habitat restoration and conservation practices to support climate change resilience. Conservation managers from federal, state, and non-governmental organizations will help the project team identify priority sites for generating climate-smart species lists, and to refine scientific outcomes to ensure they are actionable. Additional project outcomes include a web tool for managers to identify climate-smart species lists at any site in the Northeast.

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Project #7: Developing Climate Calendars to Inform Invasive Species Management in the Northeast
Controlling the spread and impacts of invasive species is becoming more challenging as climate conditions change. More relevant information is needed to guide timely and localized management actions for these species to preserve cultural resources and ecosystem integrity.

Data products are most valuable when they are developed with input from the people who use them for invasive species management decisions. This project will invite decision makers, Tribal representatives, and natural resource managers to share the social and cultural values that influence their trust and use of data. These shared insights will be used by the project team to shape the format, delivery, and communication of a suite of map products reflecting “Thermal Calendars” for the northeast region. These calendars indicate when specific warmth levels are reached during the year, which are crucial indicators of key events in the life cycles of plants and animals like when invasive plants produce flowers or seeds, or when invasive insects hatch from eggs or emerge as adults.

These products can support state, federal, university, Tribal, and NGO partners based in northeastern states as they plan and implement management activities to control invasive species in a changing climate.

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